Set plays

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
ROMEO AND JULIET. Royal Shakespeare Company. The Barbican, London. THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. Savoy Theatre, London.

Romeo and Juliet sometimes appears to be a sunny Mediterranean comedy which takes an unfortunate turn. In Michael Boyd's production we are left in no doubt, from the very beginning, that this is a violent society. A splash of blood colours a grim wall in the first scene and remains there throughout.

There is nothing sweet about this reading, although Alexandra Gilbreath's Juliet and David Tennant's Romeo make an intense and passionate couple. Gilbreath's Juliet, slight and youthful, is nevertheless more mature than the usual impressionable teenager. She is a tough-minded young woman, very much in control. Tennant's Romeo, in contrast, gives way to his emotions, purposefully kills Tybalt and sometimes seems a broken man.

The young lovers are haunted by the old feud between their families, the Montagues and Capulets. The production has some ghostly moments as the shades of Tybalt and Mercutio watch the proceedings after their death and finally the spirits of Romeo and Julet walk in white among the black-clad mourners.

But this production makes the most of the humour too. The Nurse (Eileen McCallum) is a broadly comic, Scottish creation who makes her first entrance dragging a dead chicken. Sex - menacing as well as romantic - bubbles just under the surface of every word and action providing a proper degree of tension. Even the formal dance at the Capulet ball manages to be rather more suggestive than courtly elegance requires.

Romeo and Juliet has moved from Stratford to London. Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest has travelled from the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, to the Savoy via Australia. There have been cast changes, but Patricia Routledge is still in the dominating, "handbag" role of Lady Bracknell. Her interpretation of this social dragon in Christopher Morahan's production as someone not quite out of the top drawer and therefore afraid of a possible re-run of the French Revolution if the rules of behaviour are broken, adds a sharpness to these familiar lines.

Heather Neill

Tickets: Barbican, 020 7638 8891; Savoy, 020 7836 8888

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